Experience the Northern Cape, South Africa

Most people have heard of Africa’s Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino, Cape buffalo and elephant – but few know about the Shy Five: meerkat, aardvark, aardwolf, porcupine and bat-eared fox. These animals are all elusive by nature, mostly nocturnal and found in the Northern Cape. The sixth species mentioned in this blog, the riverine rabbit, is also seldom seen – and critically endangered.

Meerkat

Meerkat Northern Cape
The meerkat, fierce defender of the burrow. (Image: Northern Cape Tourism Authority)

The meerkat (Suricata suricatta) or suricate is yellow-brown to silver with rows of russet spots on its back. It has a pointed muzzle and dark circles around its eyes and, at around 30cm long, it’s a compact animal that has a black-tipped tail measuring another 20cm in length.

The meerkat is typically seen sitting on its hind legs, closely observing its surroundings for predatory birds.

Meerkats feed on geckos, snakes, small rodents and insects. Females have up to three litters of pups per year and young are raised communally, with one meerkat left on guard duty at the den while the rest of the family is out foraging.

Territorially, meerkats in the Northern Cape are found predominantly in the Kalahari Desert and Karoo. Find out more about these endearing mammals at the Kalahari Meerkat Project based in Kuruman or the Kalahari Trails Meerkat Project.

Aardvark

Aardvark
The aardvark is nocturnal and hides in its cool burrow during the heat of the day. (Image: Gnacio Yufera/Instagram/)

The aardvark (“earth pig” in Afrikaans) is an elusive creature that is nocturnal by nature. Its powerful claws are armed with nails that are used to dig for prey, which it locates by smell and sound.

An arched back, elongated snout and large pointed ears define the aardvark (Orycteropus afer). It’s a short, solid animal that reaches a height of about 60cm and length of 110cm. The tail can be up to 70cm long.

The aardvark is insectivorous and uses its powerful claws to root around in termite mounds and expose succulent insects, which it laps up using its long, sticky tongue.

The female gives birth to a single, hairless pink baby that reaches maturity at the age of two. A solitary animal, the aardvark is active at night, only occasionally emerging from its burrow during the day.

Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the aardvark is found in savannah grassland where food and water resources are plentiful. Close to Kimberley, the Karoo Gariep Conservancy offers night drives to see the aardvark and other nocturnal species, or you might prefer the Benfontein Nature Reserve in the same region.

Bat-eared fox

Bat Eared Fox
The bat-eared fox is distinguishable by its disproportionately large ears. (Image: Bernie Dup/Foter.com )

The most distinctive feature of the bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis) is its disproportionately large ears, which are put to good use tracking prey that moves underground.

The bat-eared fox sports a fluffy silver-grey coat and has a black-tipped tail. Its muzzle is long and pointed with a white underside. These foxes are relatively small, measuring 30cm from the ground to the shoulders and tipping the scales at around 3kg to 5kg.

Foxes hunt in family groups and feed on fruit, rodents and insects, with a preference for harvester termites. At two years of age the females start breeding and litters comprise two to five cubs.

Mainly nocturnal, the bat-eared fox escapes the heat by retreating to its cool burrow. It is found in arid and semi-arid areas such as the Cape fynbos regions and the Kalahari Desert, including the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

Aardwolf

Aardwolf
With its sloping profile, the aardwolf resembles a small hyena. (Image: Derek Keats/Foter.com)

Like the aardvark, the aardwolf has a palate for termites. Although often confused by name, these two animals look nothing alike. The aardwolf (Proteles cristata) has yellow-brown fur with black stripes along its back and legs, and it sports a dark, bushy tail.

Reminiscent of a small hyena, the aardwolf reaches 50cm in height and has a tail that’s 25cm in length.

The aardwolf feeds on termites and is capable of consuming 200 000 to 300 000 of them in a single meal. It has acute hearing that helps to locate termites and a long, flexible, sticky tongue to gather them up. Aardwolf prey may also include mice, carrion, eggs and birds.

Solitary and nocturnal by nature, the aardwolf pairs up and mates only for breeding purposes. Two to four cubs make up an average litter.

Since they cannot share termites, this animal is a lone hunter that will claim an abandoned porcupine or aardvark burrow as its home.

Open savannah grassland plains are the preferred territory of the aardwolf. To view this elusive animal, your best bet is the Mokala National Park, 80km from Kimberley.

Porcupine

Porky Pine
Contrary to widely held belief, the porcupine does not shoot its quills into would-be predators. (Image: Foter.com)

The Cape porcupine is the largest rodent in Southern Africa and is predominantly nocturnal.

It has a stocky body, small eyes and ears, and short whiskers. The spines (quills) covering its body can measure up to 5cm long. Between its longer black-and-white-banded quills are short, 3cm-long black quills with sharp tips that are used in defence.

It's untrue that porcupines shoot their quills into predators. Rather, the porcupine presents its array of quills and if a predator tries to attack, it will end up being spiked, usually in the face.

The Cape porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) is primarily herbivorous, but expands its diet to incorporate fruit, roots, bark, seeds and bulbs. A preference for roots and bulbs tends to lead to conflict with farmers.

The male and female usually cohabit and will defend their territory – which may include half a dozen burrows – as a pair. The porcupine also practises joint parenting.

You will find the Cape porcupine in numbers in the Hantam National Botanical Garden in the Northern Cape.

Riverine rabbit

Riverine Rabbit Lo Res
The critically endangered riverine rabbit. (Image: riverine_rabbit101/Instagram)

The riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis) is the only indigenous burrowing rabbit in Africa. It is also critically endangered.

This grey mammal grows to around 52cm in length on maturity and has distinctively large ears and a dark brown band running from its lower jaw to the underside of its ears. Its eyes are ringed in white.

Riverine rabbits typically inhabit the thick brush that flanks rivers in the central Karoo, where the soil is deep, soft and easy to burrow into.

The rabbits are nocturnal and feed on shrubs and new grass. Interestingly, they obtain vitamin B from consuming their own droppings.

First identified in 1902, the rabbit earned the nickname “pondhaas” (pound rabbit) as £1 was the amount paid by Captain GC Shortridge, the curator of the Kaffrarian Museum in King William’s Town, for every one presented to him.

Many threats impact the future of the riverine rabbit: habitat destruction due to crop growing and livestock grazing, predation by dogs, extreme weather and disease, road death, and inbreeding. Today most rabbits are found on private farmland, given that more than half of their original habitat has been destroyed.

The good news is that the Endangered Wildlife Trust has established a Riverine Rabbit Programme to conserve and ensure the survival of this unique species and its vital habitat.